The maneki-neko, or Japanese “beckoning cat,” is a cultural symbol that has grown to be recognized as a figure of good luck. What follows is a brief history of maneki-neko and the significance of each color variety. 

Even if you are not superstitious, psychologists have shown that so-called good-luck charms can help support positive outcomes by boosting one’s confidence in their ability to succeed. While sometimes these charms are very personal, many cultures have symbols or rituals that are widely viewed as lucky within that society. 

The Rise of Maneki-Neko 

Maneki-neko style Japanese cat dolls can be traced back to the Edo period (1603–1868), an era of wealth, relative peace, and flourishing arts. The period was an idyllic time for cats as well— an imperial decree in 1602 set all cats free in Japan, intending to capitalize on the felines’ natural ability for pest control, as reported in National Geographic.

The maneki-neko dolls are believed to have first appeared in several Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo). Each of these places of worship claim their own unique story of how the maneki-neko came to be. Two of the most well-known legends about maneki-neko are given below. 

Gōtoku-ji Temple (Setagaya City Special Ward): While passing Gōtoku-ji Temple, lord samurai Ii Naotaka (1590–1659) of the Hikone domain was beckoned by a cat at the temple gate. Once he entered the temple, an unexpected heavy thunderstorm started pouring down. 

1 A 20th-century molded-plaster maneki-neko, gifted to the Mingei International Museum by Billie L. Moffitt (CC BY-NC-SA). Photo: RW Sinclair, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).

In gratitude for being saved from the storm, Ii Naotaka decided to provide continuous donations to Gōtoku-ji Temple, which had been struggling financially. The cat became the temple’s symbol and brought them continuous good fortune. 

Imado Shrine (Taitō Special Ward): In 1852, an old woman living in Imado was so poor she could no longer feed her pet cat and regrettably let it go. That night, the cat appeared to the lady in a dream and said, “If you make dolls in my image, I will bring you good fortune.” 

Following the cat’s instructions, the old woman made some cat figurines from Imado ware, a type of local terra-cotta ceramics, and went to a shrine to sell the figures at the gates. The ceramic cats became very popular, saving the old woman from poverty. 

Mass Production 

As noted in the Imado Shrine legend above, maneki-neko dolls originally were created out of local clays by individual artisans. However, as the symbol gained popularity, mass production using plaster molds allowed the ceramic cat to spread quickly throughout Japan during the Meiji era (1868–1912). 

The maneki-neko dolls experienced several design changes during this time. The original cats wore only a bell around their necks. However, the bells started to be replaced with ryō, an oval-shaped Japanese gold coin, to represent wealth. 

Additionally, the original maneki-neko dolls were designed to look very realistic. But in the 1950s, makers in Aichi Prefecture started giving the cats bigger heads and wider eyes, similar to the style of the Okkawa Ningyo dolls from that prefecture. 

2 A present-day maneki-neko that features both a bell and ryō (Japanese gold coin). Photo: RW Sinclair, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).

Color Variations 

The original maneki-neko dolls were calico, featuring a combination of white, black, and orange. But when the ceramic cats started to become widely associated with Chinese feng shui, the figurine started being offered in different color variations, each with their own meaning. 

  • Calico or white (original color): happiness and purity 
  • Black: protection against evil spirits and malicious people 
  • Gold: wealth and prosperity 
  • Red: good health and protection against disease 
  • Pink: romance 
  • Green: success in education 
  • Blue: wisdom and success 

1 R. Saunders, “The fascinating history behind the popular ‘waving lucky cat’,” National Geographic. Published 3 May 2021. Accessed 29 April 2024. Available at

the author Lisa McDonald is the Bulletin editor at The American Ceramic Society. Prior to this position, McDonald worked at the American Institute of Physics: FYI and the ATLAS Experiment at CERN. She has a master’s degree in science communication and specializes in communicating science to nonspecialist audiences.